CWHC interns Meghan Pickens and Andrew Staton sat down with Tony Youmans, executive director of the Old Exchange Building and Provost Dungeon, to talk history and World Heritage. Nice button, Tony!
What does your role as director entail?
The word director is kind of a misnomer in that most of the time people believe that it is a very high and exalted position and really you’re just responsible for everything. So, to be honest with you, today I have changed lightbulbs, swept the floor, taken garbage out. So, while we manage a staff of about 30 people, the responsibilities are all. So it gives me an opportunity to work with great people; it gives me an opportunity to steward them, you know, when they are in school and interning, and hopefully put them on a path to leadership. And so it’s fun!
What goal influences you the most on a daily basis?
The mission of the Exchange Building is to educate, and we educate by getting people in the building, so that we can tell them the story of the Exchange – which is 245 years old this year. So that mission is fairly wide in that, number one, we have to support the building…We just finished a major $400,000 capital improvement project, where we scraped and painted, so the building looks just absolutely wonderful. It looks great – and we’re really happy about it!
With that restoration work, is there anything else that you think would be great to see happen here?
You know Mayor Riley. I am a big fan of Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. – our past mayor here for 40 years…. He always says, ‘There is so much more work to be done, there is so much more to do.’ And he would say that every time he ran for election. And he’s right – there so much more to do! Same thing here at the Exchange Building…. One of the fun things that I would like to do is get back to that interpretation that we talked about is part of our mission. All of these windows and doors that you see in the Old Exchange were open, and so an idea that one of our interns had a couple years ago was to install glass doors on the Exchange floor, so that when you came down Broad Street, you would see the same thing that people saw in 1771 – a wonderful open structure.
How do you think the Old Exchange and Provost has influenced Charleston’s development?
From the very beginning, the commissioners that are placed with the responsibility of getting this built were the same men that sped toward the movement for independence, during the American War… But the building, from 1771 on, was a focal point. It was a geographic location…Everyone in this area [at that time] knew the Exchange. So [they would say] ‘I’ll meet you at the Exchange’ or ‘We’ll go to an auction at the Exchange’ or ‘We’ll have a meeting at the Exchange.’ And so this place is always, always, for 245 years out of this state’s well over 300 year history, this building has been a part of it.
So [based on that] you would say that people who journeyed back to Britain or wherever, they would know where the old Exchange was, if they told a friend who might be going to Charleston, might would bring that knowledge back to them there?
Absolutely and everywhere else. This was an international sea port. John Rutledge, the Colonial Governor of South Carolina during the Revolution, he writes in his journal that, when he is in Charlestown he is at the Exchange every day, because this was [like] CNN. This whole floor. You had merchants here, you had businessmen, you had sea captains that had just arrived from Jamaica or Barbados or St. Augustine. They are carrying [with the] the latest news. And so, he [John Rutledge] is here, it’s the CNN. So [the Exchange] is very important, as far as the business that took place here.
Slaves and the Slave Trade were such important factors in this portion of history. What role did the Old Exchange play in that portion of history?
We just rolled out a new exhibit. We have been studying this for decades, but two years ago we put forth a firm effort to study slave auctions and the African American experience on this site. What we want to do here, ultimately with the Exchange Building is be the absolute authority of what happened on this site… Slaves were the most important part of the agrarian economy that was the South. In the nation, for the most part… The primary location for slave auctions, to sell these people, was the Exchange… So we have got panel information on every level, talking about slaves, their relationship with the building, and most importantly, auctions that took place just north of the building. Again, it was a geographic location. So slave sales were, from 1771 all the way up until 1856, going to take place in or mostly around the Exchange building. So that area just to the north, where there is a beautiful live oak tree, was just a dirt, dusty lot and anywhere from one slave to anywhere around 200 slaves could be sold there, daily…When the British captured the city in May of 1780, this business is so important, so vital to the economy [of that time] that slave sales took place even under British occupation. That fascinates me. And then, ultimately, in 1856 it is so prolific on East Bay Street that merchants are complaining that it’s blocking traffic and also hindering… In 1856, open slave sales and public auctions are forbidden, and then we have private slave sales taking place, and that leads to State Street, Chalmers Street, Queen Street – about 40 locations, number one of which would be Ryan’s auction mart, which today is the location of 6 Chalmer’s Street and is the location of the Old Slave Mart Museum. So, African American experience is highly interwoven with everything in Charleston.
We are working with the CWHC to prove familial and genealogical connections to Charleston. So many famous African Americans can trace their heritage back to Charleston. …
Michelle Obama can trace her ancestry back through Georgetown. Chris Rock and so many more, over and over again you see this…Slavery is without a doubt, the worst scar in our nation’s history, but we’ve got to talk about it. It is a hard irony in that, here at the Exchange building, we celebrate our patriotism. This is where we declared our independence from Great Britain on March 6 of 1776. We elect our Continental Congress Delegates here. We read the Declaration of Independence from the very steps of the Exchange, and read again up in the Great Hall. So all of these wonderful acts of patriotism happen, but how can you justify it when… What did Jefferson mean when he said ‘all men are created equal?’ in the rights of man. So I like to believe and tell our visitors… that our forefathers set forth an opportunity, a template. You know, with the Declaration of Independence, those words, and then ultimately the Constitution of Bill of Rights. It’s up to us.
How can people benefit from knowing the history of this building?
My mother would always say, in a wonderful German accent, ‘Vy are you going to college?’ and I thought about it and went ‘Well mom, so I can open a newspaper in the morning, I can read it and understand it. I can interpret it and make my own decisions.’ And that’s freedom… The study of history, I wish I knew more when I was younger, but I have always had a passion for history and wish I would have done more. My English history is a little weak, my European history is a little weak, but I am staunch patriot and believer in the United States and the dream that is America. We’re going to make mistakes and we’re human, and all we can do is strive to do the right thing. And I think that is what we’re trying to do and I think that is what most people are motivated to do. That is what helps society. And society as a whole obviously benefits from education…
What would you say visitors find most compelling or most interesting when they tour?
I think, when they tour the exchange building, we provide a snapshot of again 245 years of history and before. The site that we talk about is specific to Charleston and very very important… In 1680, the majority of the permanent settlement has moved to the peninsula and took on high land…They decided to fortify the city by building a wall… And we have a portion of that sea wall that was excavated and found by accident in 1966…They tore down parts of it, but they left a substantial amount. So when we talk about the oldest English man-made structure south of Jamestown, Virginia in the 1690s and we have a part of it in our basement, in our dungeon – I call it the dungeon because that was a vernacular term during the American Revolution. You know, we’ve got a part of it, so we interpret history from the earliest days of the colony up until the present. And I think that is what our patrons are most surprised about when they come here is how old Charleston is and we are not all about the Civil War and there is a fairly substantial history to learn. And really, how much South Carolina contributed to the American Revolution. But the earliest parts of the colony, we can interpret right here. Because we are part of it.
Leading into World Heritage, where would you say most of the visitors are from?
The United States by far and away…. Brazil, Spain, people from Eastern Europe…We had a lot of visitors from South America. I was stunned at the international crowd that was visiting…Obviously Charleston is well known for the first shot fired at Fort Sumter in anger on April 12 of 1861 at the start of the Civil War – the worst conflagration in our nation’s history. So, everybody equates Charleston with the Civil War…the majority of Americans and maybe the majority of our international visitors, too, believe that the American Revolution was fought primarily in New England. …In the last eighteen months, more battles are fought in South Carolina then all states combined. Over 160 battles. New Jersey is second. More South Carolinians lose their lives in American Revolution than all states combined. New Jersey is second. We also had more debt in the American Revolution than any other state. And British historians will tell you the war was lost in the south. Francis Marion, the Swampfox, Thomas Sumter, the Gamecock, William Washington, the sword of the calvary, Daniel Morgan, Nathaniel Greene. These great, great heroes of South Carolina.
What about rice – do you see it as a backbone in getting Charleston designated as a world heritage site?
We fed the world in rice for arguably 80 years. We could not have planted this crop and reaped its benefits without slaves – those people that are capable and skilled and knowledgeable of working the fields so that we can benefit from it. This very building, on the oculus – a wonderful architectural detail that is on the water side of the building – and its interpreted in that painting I showed you. That oculus, surrounding it, is a decorative piece of woodwork of rice stalks. So we are bragging to you, as you sail into Charleston, how we made our money. We are telling you by broadcasting it – rice, Carolina Gold.
How long have you been the director here?
I started my 13th year in January of this years. It has been incredible time. I don’t even consider it work. You wake up in the morning and you’re happy to go to work – that’s how you know you’ve found the right place. … How cool is it to work in a place where George Washington was entertained? I mean, to walk in his footsteps, to walk the footsteps of the men upstairs that ratified the Constitution of the United States making us the eighth state. I mean, wow. So that aspect of our history is very rich, its very popular, its great to relate. But you’ve got to talk about it all – you have to talk about the good and the bad, so that is why I am so pleased about this African American initiative and the history.
We would challenge every historic site that interprets history. If it involved African American labor, if it involved this, talk about it. You know, research it, perform due diligence, and talk about it, interpret it and leave it to your visitor to decide as to whether it contributed.
How would UNESCO World Heritage Designation for Charleston impact the Exchange building?
I think it would be another great accolade, and to be included in something as incredible as that, a world heritage site and a world heritage coalition and to be associated with other institutions that are deemed that important and that significant, I cant imagine. It would be just a real symbol of the good work that we have done in a sense of stewardship and relating that history. But it would be an incredible thing for Charleston and it would be in support and be a reward for all the good work and good things that do happen here.
Why do you think Charleston and the Old Exchange should receive this designation?
To be a part of that, to be associated with an international umbrella of support sites – it would be incredible. …people have worked very, very hard to preserve and interpret their sense or their view of what they think is important in Charleston or in South Carolina. We see it all over the state, but no more than in Charleston. This is something very special and unique here…that celebration of what we have done, what people did a hundred years ago as far as preservation and stewardship, that is probably the best thing. Stewardship – that’s what we’re doing. We are here for a short time in this wonderful wonderful place, this cultural, architectural place with so much to offer. It wasn’t difficult for me to think that Charleston should certainly be nominated for World Heritage site status because it is – I mean, you travel, you go to other towns, but this, again, I have never lived anywhere that has such a sense of place – and that’s Charleston.